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Jupiter Hollow

[Peter Viney]  by Peter Viney

Copyright © Peter Viney 1998

Jupiter Hollow
by Robbie Robertson
from ‘Northern Lights - Southern Cross’ (1975)

Well, it’s one major reason why you have to have the original albums, not the collections. It never even made it to a collection. It never even got played on stage. But it’s The Band at their very best. It’s sublime Garth Hudson at his very best. It’s one of my all time favourite Band tracks. It makes Barney Hoskyns’ Top 20 Band tracks. It makes my Top 10.

First the line-up is certainly different:

Twin drummers, as in the current line-up. Two keyboard players, but one is Robbie Robertson playing hynoptic clavinette as a rhythm instrument. No guitar. Layer upon layer of Garth Hudson. Voices switching in their best style where you have to listen hard to work out which is which (not that I’m bothered). Probably too hard to do on stage, though with the addition of Richard Bell’s abilities on both percussive keyboards and sustained keyboards they could probably manage it.

On the CD version it closes the album, though the original LP release (and the Japanese CD version) gave us a different running order with Rags and Bones as the final selection. It also contains the only reference to the album title, Northern Lights -Southern Cross. At first sight, the title seems to refer to the night sky (compare Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Southern Cross the same year). In this song, the words ‘northern lights’ are followed by ‘in the midnight sun’ so refer to the heavens. The album title as a whole refers beyond that to the Canada-Arkansas axis within The Band. Northern Lights is Canada. [1] Southern Cross is the Confederate flag, or The South. The album’s centrepiece is Acadian Driftwood and this connects Canada with New Orleans. [2]

Let’s review the quotes first:

Levon Helm
One number, Jupiter Hollow, was a showcase for Garth, who really earned his nickname of H.B. (Honey Boy) on that album, because he was the one who put in the studio time that sweetened the record and put it in that state-of-the-studio mode. Shangri-La had twenty four tracks, and Garth used that leeway to craft as many as half a dozen keyboard tracks on a single song using the ARP, Roland, Mini-Moog and other synthesizers he was working with. A lot of this stuff was tied together with a computer keyboard, which Garth wielded like the wizard he is, giving the music an almost orchestral overlay.

Barney Hoskyns
Shangri-La was a state-of-the-art 24-track studio, fully equipped with the latest synthesizers, and Garth spent many hours on his keyboard parts. Absorbed in the possibilities of the new technology, he saw no problem in incorporating Mini Moogs and ARP string ensembles into The Band’s essentially lo-tech sound. One listen to the intricate layers of Jupiter Hollow is enough to show that he succeeded.

Chris Morris (Billboard, CD sleeve notes)
Thanks to advances in technology (most notably in the employment of new, sophisticated keyboards by Garth Hudson), the music takes on a lustrous, layered sheen. It’s hard to think of another Band album that sounds so plain gorgeous … The instrumental performances on Northern Lights – Southern Cross are almost otherworldly in themselves. Without showing off, The Band gives an in depth demonstration of its collective chops. Of particular note … (is Hudson’s) phatasmagorical keyboard playing on Jupiter Hollow.

Greil Marcus
The action (on Northern Lights- Southern Cross) took place between the lines; if Moondog Matinee was Manuel’s album, this one, despite the fact that Robbie had written all the songs, was Garth Hudson’s. He played with deceptive anonymity; his music worked as a presence, tapestries hung on back walls. No nuance escaped him, no shade of emotion, no matter how elusive, seemed beyond him.

The remastered version from 1990 brings it all out (and makes you wonder why Big Pink and The Band have never had the same treatment).

The lyrics

The following study of the lyrics will inevitably contain over-interpretation. I’ve tried to follow up every lead and will probably have assigned meanings that were not intended to be there. This is almost always the case with analyzing lyrics (or poetry). Take it as read that it’s the music that matters, and remember Robbie Robertson’s comment that he never knew nor wanted to know the exact words to Little Richard or Chuck Berry songs.

The only place they printed the words officially on a release is the Japanese edition of the CD. There is a problem with the Japanese CD lyrics, as usual :

Where was the unicorn
And the dragon queen
Beneath a bird in the sky
I saw a soldier sing of a firestorm
With a distance in his eyes
Livin in another world
Livin in another time
Like a cormorant I was furled
Oh, livin in another world

Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
And Capitol is perfectly content to emblazon its corporate logo all over that lot, which is about as much respect as they’ve ever given to The Band. Witness their CDNow press releases for the 1998 Japanese hits collection which include songs like Cliple Cleak and Caredonia.

The real lyrics for this section:

There was a unicorn
And a dragon queen
Beneath the burgundy sky
I saw an old soldier singin’ a love song
He had the distance in his eye
Livin in another world
Livin in another time
Like a comet I was hurled
Oh, livin in another world

At least, that’s what I think they are and the website agrees. Maybe the Japanese translator is right and we’re wrong. In which case they’re crap. Whatever, they don’t sound a lot like The Band. Actually, on the surface they sound a bit like that British band, Yes. Gandalf and goblins and gremlins and Gemini.

Hoskyns says this.

Barney Hoskyns
All three (vocalists) played an equal part in the gorgeous Jupiter Hollow, a song inspired by Robbie’s perusal of an encylopaedia of Greek mythology.

Unicorns and dragon queens had always seemed more medieval to me, and maybe my mind was adding a capital letter so that ‘burgundy sky’ became ‘Burgundy sky’ which added to the impression. Hoskyns is right though. A glance at a dictionary of mythology makes the connections if we follow the song through.

First the title. Jupiter Hollow. Sounds like a place. I thought of it as a location somewhere in the woods, a hollow in the ground, a mystic dell. It could be a place name, which would sound American. Compare Washington Irving’s ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.’ I see it as a place in the woods, though I wondered if it could be an astronomical phenomenem, possibly a view or aspect of Jupiter, tying in with ‘Mercury rising too’ and ‘Northern Lights’. Or it could be astrological. Holt’s The Planets has Jupiter as the ‘Bringer of Jollility’ which fits the mood of the music perfectly.It’s a very ‘jolly’ tune and arrangment.

During the period of composition (1914-16), (Holst) studied astrology closely … and was later keen to emphasize that it was the astrological character of each planet … that he meant to express. [8]

Jupiter is a classical reference, but he was the Roman sky-god, not the Greek one (Zeus).

It starts off like a standard fairy story. The Northern Lights cast a glow through the window, and you find yourself led away. You follow through the sycamore and find yourself in this magic dell, this place (or this state of mind) you’ve never been before. Sycamores are a pretty ubiquitous tree. I don’t think they place the story. And initially, at this point, neither do the unicorn and the dragon queen. To pick those up you have to listen further. First in the chorus:

Livin’ in another world, livin’ in another time
Like a comet I was hurled,
Oh, livin in another world

In the next verse, we find that the place is so far, so near and:

Like a time machine take you out to a different year
Phoebus Apollo played on his lyre
while we danced to the music of the spheres

This is listed as ‘sphere’ on the published lyric, but must surely be ‘the music of the spheres’ which is the heavenly swish of the circling planets [9] … back to Holst and astrology again. We’re dancing to the music created by moving planets. We’re dancing to their tune. We’re led by their forces.

Phoebus Apollo places us in Ancient Greece. Phoebus meant ‘shining’ and was applied to Apollo as the god of the sun.(He was also the god of music and of prophecy). Comets were hurled by Apollo, they were the darts or arrows of Apollo. Intriguingly, in the legends Apollo had obtained his lyre from Hermes (Roman: Mercury) in a tale reminiscent of Daniel and The Sacred Harp. Once we know we’re talking about Apollo, the rest starts to fit. The Oracle of Apollo was at Delphi.

According to one legend, the young Apollo went to Delphi … to slay there the earth serpent… This python, a son of Gaia, sent up revelations through a fissure in the rock; a priestess, the Pythia, inhaling the potent fumes, was thus inspired to give voice to cryptic utterances – the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle. Apollo killed the great snake and took its place. Another legend makes the dispossessed creature a she-dragon named Delphyne, the ‘womb-like’ hence Delphi. [10]

So Apollo links up with a she-dragon, a dragon queen. And the dragon queen is named Delphyne. Delphyne is not a well-known Greek legend. Neither the Encyclopedia Britannica nor the definitive New Larousse Dictionary of Mythology have any index reference to her. Robert Graves Greek Myths [11] mentions Delphyne as a ‘serpent tailed sister monster of Typhon’ and that’s about it. In mythology, the words serpent, python, dragon and even worm are just about interchangeable. In the Biblical / Western tradition serpents symbolize deceit and evil. In Greek myth, as in Chinese folklore, the association is with wisdom. Delphyne links us to the Delphic Oracle whose utterances are ‘enigmatic, cryptic, obscure.’ Why am I devoting a paragraph to this obscure Greek dragon? Because Robbie Robertson’s daughter is called Delfine, which is the French spelling of Delphyne. This might point to motivation, certainly to more than a passing interest in the myths of Delphi. It also links to the start being like a fairy story.

The Delphic Oracle prophesised, through the mouth of a priestess stoned on the vapour of burning laurel leaves (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.) The words were not only hard to understand, but also hard to hear. So we get:

Twas then the prophet said, the secret of the dead
I’ll whisper it to you

Medieval paintings were full of symbols and cross-references, and this song is too. The she-dragon appears with a unicorn. In Greek mythology the unicorn was known as the ‘goat-stag’ and held the secrets of immortality. This is set in the Arcadian world of Greece. There’s yet another clever piece of writing in beneath the burgundy skies which is the mirror reflection of the ‘wine-dark seas’ of Greece. I even begin to wonder if the move from Acadie (Acadian Driftwood) to the origin of its name (Arcadia) is deliberate. The sycamores might also feature here:

(The sycamore’s) leaves were regarded as the symbol of peace and quiet in the next life; the souls of the deceased were sometimes thought of as the birds that lived in the branches of the sycamore. [12]

I don’t know where the old soldier singing a love song comes from, but it makes me think of the Danville train rather than a man in Greek costume. I like had the distance in his eyes.

There are things which puzzle me. The printed lyrics are:

And as the moon went down and the sun came up
with the mercury rising too

Which ostensibly means it got hotter as the sun came up – the mercury rose in the thermometer. OK, makes a kind of sense, but hardly worth mentioning. I was pretty sure it’s ‘Mercury’ with a capital-M. But Venus is the Morning Star, not Mercury … and though there’s no definite article before Mercury, it seems to be the physical planet rising in the sky. [13] Astrologically, Mercury rising near or on the ascendant is significant for communicators, writers and musicians.

The final verse is:

Jupiter Hollow. In the midnight sun.
Well, no man of dreams was ever more outdone
Where the swallows circle overhead
And muses gather by the river of the tears we shed
Just like a pioneer in the new frontier
I don’t know where to begin
Because nobody cares when a man goes mad
And tries to free the ghost within

This is intriguing, enigmatic … oh, yes ‘Delphic’. Robertson’s characteristic juxtaposition of places is here … if Jupiter Hollow’s in the midnight sun then it’s Canada not Greece. And the singer’s like a ‘pioneer on the new frontier’. But what is ‘the new frontier’? The term has variously been used for outer space and poverty in inner cities. In the past it was a receding line moving westwards (and in Canada northwards).

The (Greek) muses gather by a river.

In his aspect of god of music, Apollo’s habitual companions were the Muses. Thus he was called Apollo Musagetes … at Delphi, their names – Nete, Mese and Hypate – personified the three strings of the lyre. The Muses were for long merged in an indissoluble choir which presided over music and poetry. [14]

The Muses derived their inspiration from the sacred spring, Castalia, at Delphi. This spring was linked to the River Cephisus on the same mountain, which was thought to be the mouth of the River Styx, separating the world from Hades. So the river which inspires the Muses is the river of the tears we shed. Sorrow is the mother of musical inspiration. I guess some folks call it the blues.

I’m even prepared to believe there’s a mythological significance in circling swallows overhead, and I found this reference:

In antiquity, Greek women poured oil on (swallows which they caught in the house) and let them fly away, apparently for the purpose of removing ill-luck from the household. [15]

Swallows were unlucky omens in Greek mythology (though lucky for the Romans). In Babylonian myth, swallows were ‘the imperishable northern stars.’ [16] Maybe it’s just a visual image, but an omen of misfortune circling over the river of tears seems appropriate.

The end has nothing to do with Greek mythology (I think). It’s sudden, personal and sharp:

Because nobody cares when a man goes mad
and tries to free the ghost within.

That brings us back to the Muse, to inspiration, to the expression of (the) soul, to mortality.

I used to think the lyrics Tolkienesque (come back Marc Bolan, all is forgiven) but a detailed analysis reveals that it was more carefully-crafted than I’d imagined. I’d always thought of the song as a great tune and a brilliant performance with lyrics of lesser quality. As I delved further in writing this I began to realise that once more Robbie Robertson was investing a great deal of craft into his writing.

What about a contemporary performance by The Band? I suspect the layered keyboards were beyond the stage technology of 1975, and they’d have needed at least three keyboards set up assuming that Robertson would have played clavinette and the other two split the organ and synth duties. It’s probably less of a challenge nowadays, though it would have to use a greatly-simplified keyboard arrangement or prepared computerized tracks, which is hardly their style.They’ve avoided it for more than twenty years and I can’t see Levon Helm 1998-edition singing these words with great conviction. Mythology – American mythology is the basis of The Band. Astrology? Greek gods? A little too ‘West Coast 75’ for them, I think.

It’s one of a group of great but unperformed songs (Daniel & The Sacred Harp is another.) Danko and Levon could share the vocals with a little help from Ciarlante, and what a tremendous showcase for Garth it would be. Recent (June 1998) lists of Top Tens on the Website showed that I’m not alone in rating it as one of their very best songs.

One only: Northern Lights-Southern Cross, (1975)


  1. The Canadian Live-Aid single in 1985 was 'Tears Are Not enough' by Northern Lights, an ensemble that included Richard Manuel and Ronnie Hawkins.
  2. Well, it's the centrepiece for most listeners. Levon Helm seems to find 'Ophelia' particularly pleasing while 'It Makes No Difference' is the highpoint of every Rick Danko live performance.
  3. Levon Helm & Stephen Davis, 'This Wheel's On Fire' 1993 (Egg and chicken)
  4. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide' 1993 (Chicken and egg)
  5. Chris Morris, sleeve notes to remastered CD release, 1990
  6. Greil Marcus, 'Mystery Train' Fourth Revised edition, 1997
  7. Barney Hoskyns, 'Across The Great Divide' 1993 (Chicken and egg)
  8. Anonymous sleeve notes to the Charles Dutoit / Orchestre symphonique de Montréal recording of 'The Planets' (Decca) 1986
  9. To be precise, 'the natural harmonic tones supposedly produced by the movement of the series of concentric transparent hollow globes envisaged by medieval astronomers as revolving around the Earth.' (Shorter Oxford Dictionary) - ah! Each one represents a planet … therefore 'Jupiter Hollow'?
  10. Arthur Cotterell, 'A Dictionary of World Mythology' 1979
  11. Robert Graves, 'The Greek Myths' 1955
  12. The Element Encylopedia of Symbols, ed. Udo Becker, 1992/1994, which reminds me that writers, like dreamers, do not necessarily have to be conscious in their use of symbols.
  13. Anyone getting hot under the collar about such minor language details should realise that analysing lyrics in depth is better than flaming strangers on web sites.
  14. New Larousse Encylopedia of Mythology, 1959, 1973
  15. J.G. Frazier, 'The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic & Religion' 1922
  16. J.G. Cooper 'Symbolic and Mythological Animals' 1992

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